PHOTOS: The Dying Art of Making Dia de los Muertos Sugar Skulls
Meet the company keeping this Mexican tradition alive.
All photos by the author
"In Mexico, we are not afraid of death," Guillermo Jiménez tells me. "You suffer, you cry for the lost, but we take consolation in the knowledge that we have the opportunity to remember them through this holiday every year." Guillermo is the president of Jiménez Brothers, a company that has been based in northern Mexico City since 1920, specializing in making sugar skulls and other popular types of Mexican candy. "Mexico is a country rich in culture and traditions," he continues. "One of the major issues that shapes our identity is our concept of life, death, and the traditions and beliefs that revolve around it."
Day of the Dead is, perhaps, one of the most important holidays for Mexicans. It's when we honor the memories of our deceased friends and relatives by visiting their cemeteries and sharing their favorite foods on altars for the occasion. These altars are filled with the favorite food and drinks of dead relatives, and decorated with candles and flowers. Some people even leave toys for the spirits of deceased children, and alcohol to the souls of dead adults. The festivities begin promptly at midnight every October 31. For the next three days, we eat, drink, and dance. Although the event regionally varies across Mexico, sugar skulls are the universal symbol of Dia de Los Muertos.
Juana, one of the sugar skull vendors in the Merced Market, located in the heart of Mexico City, adds an interesting theory about these offerings. "The food does not rot," she says. "Not even the fruits or meat lose their color, but if you try them after a day, they have no taste at all."
But what about the skulls? "Oh! I don't know," she says. "I think sugar is immune to the spirits because the sweetness remains and perhaps intensifies"
Eating one of these sugary skulls—sweet figures of death—is like having ten lumps of sugar in your mouth at one time. There is no secret to cooking this particular sweet bomb. All it takes is sugar, a little lemon, water, and heat-resistant hands.
To make 300 small skulls, Jiménez Brothers workers boil a little bit of water with 20 kilos of white sugar. "The secret to see if the mixture is ready is to put your hand in while it is boiling, take a little shot and mix it with cold water," says Guillermo's nephew, William, who oversees the process.
Terrified, I watch him stick his bare hand into the boiling vat of piping hot sugar. I ask him if he's gotten burned. "No, it's so fast that there's no time to burn my hand," he says. "And you get used to it. We've all gone through this ritual."
The real magic happens when he is able to form the syrup into a little ball in his hands. He turns off the heat of the boiler and lets it rest for a minute before it is vigorously mixed from the side of the pot with a wooden spoon. When the mixture begins to turn white and bubbles appear, it's allowed to stand another minute and and then it's ready.
It it then poured into clay molds, cooled down, and decorated with icing: a mixture of glass sugar, egg whites, and food coloring. Guillermo explains that the company began using psychedelic skull designs in the 70s, but copycats quickly began to emerge. "We have been copied ever since, because we are committed to using a lot of color," he tells me.
William and his family are among the few that continue to maintain this tradition. "We grew up with these candies; it's part of our life, but there is concern that this kind of art is dying out because the sugar prices are going up every year and young people don't care about these traditions as much," he says. "An altar without a sugar skull is empty."